“I hate the articles that are like, ‘And she ordered a burger!’” declares Aya Cash, the 33-year-old star of FX’s breakthrough comedy, You’re the Worst. “Like, who cares?”
Cash sits across from me at her neighborhood spot, Boerum Hill’s Rucola, a small Italian restaurant on a brownstone-lined residential corner that she cops to visiting “once or twice a day.” It’s the kind of gray, drizzly October afternoon when your heart whispers, “It’s still summer,” but your head begs you to put on a sensible coat.
“Or, ‘She walked up with not a stitch of makeup and she looked glowing,’” Cash continues. “I’d rather, ‘She walked in with fucking full Kardashian war paint and, like, still didn’t look that great.’”
Cash came in fresh off an audition for a play in Manhattan before stopping off at home—she lives two blocks away—to throw on jeans and a white graphic tee decorated with a pair of hot-pink sunglasses. Her deep red hair is cropped above her shoulders, and her makeup is not so heavy that you can’t make out her faded freckles—but, yes, she is wearing some. She sports a forest-green baseball cap that reads “New York” in block letters. “I flat-ironed my hair for this audition, and I felt like I looked mildly Wall Street-y,” she explains.
She’s pretty sure she blew the audition.
“I love my show, and I’m proud of the work I do on it, but I don’t ever assume anyone’s seen it before.”
That’s some signature Cash self-deprecation at work. It’s true that You’re the Worst’s second season—currently airing on FX’s sister network, FXX—is a bit of a miracle: Its first season averaged only about 500,000 viewers per episode. But it’s well-deserved: The series has quickly become one of television’s freshest, funniest, and dirtiest comedies.
Cash plays Gretchen Cutler, a hard-partying LA music publicist who hooks up with Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere), a British novelist with a talent for sarcasm, after they meet at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding reception. She steals a blender from the gift table; he reams out the bride in front of the whole party. They’re kinda the worst.
But after a steamy (and graphically filmed) night of no-strings-attached sex, the two decide, against their strongest instincts, to try the whole dating thing. In the first season finale, Gretchen accidentally burns down her apartment (the culprit: a faulty vibrator), and she somewhat reluctantly moves in with Jimmy.
You’re the Worst is a chocolate-covered pretzel of a show, a sweet and salty treat that plays with and twists around the basic structure of a romantic comedy. The slightly heightened style of the series—dialogue is never improvised, and episodes are tightly plotted—suits Cash’s theater background.
Arriving in New York City in 2004, fresh from acting school at the University of Minnesota, Cash waitressed for four-and-a-half years before she was able to quit and pursue acting full time. Growing up on San Francisco’s Castro Street with creatively minded parents—her mother is poet Kim Addonizio, and her father, Eugene Cash, is a Buddhist teacher and former musician—Cash was raised to believe that “making it” meant creative fulfillment. “I used to say in college, my peers are so much more impressive because they became artists despite their families,” she says. “And mine were like, ‘You can be anything you want except a Republican.’”
Cash dove headfirst into the New York theater world. Her stage work—including a 2008 Off-Broadway production of Three Changes alongside Dylan McDermott and Maura Tierney—attracted the attention of network casting representatives. “The nice thing about being in New York is casting directors actually go see theater,” Cash says. She got a starring role on the 2011 Fox sitcom Traffic Light, which the network swiftly axed; a three-episode arc on HBO’s The Newsroom in 2013; and, that same year, a small role as Jordan Belfort’s assistant in Martin Scorsese’s drug-addled sex carnival, The Wolf of Wall Street.
But Gretchen is Cash’s biggest role to date, a meaty character she’s sunk her teeth into with visible relish. A hot mess of a romantic lead, Gretchen is at turns funny, sexy, wild, and a little bit tragic. Cash was initially doubtful that she would land the part. “I was like, oh they’ll never let me do this,” she says. “It’s gonna be some fake-titted hot girl. And I’m a 5’2”, freckled redhead.”
For Cash’s co-star, she’s a perfect fit for the role. Geere credits Cash—and her stage experience—with furnishing much of the chemistry between Gretchen and Jimmy. When you’re performing the same play every day, Geere says, “You’ve got to keep it fresh. I think she’s learned to do that with every take, and that’s such a pleasure for me because I don’t know where she’s going to go. She makes me a better actor because I can respond naturally.”
You’re the Worst’s creator, Stephen Falk, says it was Cash’s “combination of strength and vulnerability” that made her stand out when she auditioned for the part of Gretchen.
“I remember her doing a scene from the end of the pilot where she’s on the phone with Jimmy,” Falk tells me. “They can’t see each other, so she’s allowed to reveal her vulnerability just to the camera. He said something and the look on her face of girlish delight—not something Gretchen would let him see—was just really, really touching and beautiful.”
“I just give Stephen credit for everything,” Cash says when I ask what she brings to her character. “I really do feel like I service the writer.” Still, people are taking notice of Gretchen’s very funny and very truthful blend of breezy irreverence and deep insecurity—and they’re not only crediting the writers. Falk heard from casting agents that a script in development called for one character to be played by an “Aya Cash-type,” a hugely flattering distinction for an actor who is still relatively unknown.
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Once again, Cash is having none of it. “Someone sent me this, the ‘Aya Cash-type’ news. I called my agent and I was like, ‘I don’t have a job. Can Aya Cash get that job?’”
Cash may not readily pinpoint her on-screen “type.” But in her off-screen life, she’s about as far from her character as the Fulton Mall is from an actual mall.
“I don’t want to live Gretchen’s life, but there’s a small part of me that thinks that would be fucking amazing,” Cash says. “What a cool thing that I can live multiple lives, when I really just go home to my husband and watch Netflix every night.”
Cash met her husband, the writer and producer Josh Alexander, 10 years ago, when she was a server at Union Square’s now-shuttered Chat ‘n Chew. (“He was table number 26.”) She moved with Alexander—then her boyfriend—to Boerum Hill seven years ago, and hasn’t left since. “And I don’t think we can,” she says. “It’s gotten so expensive. Like, I’m on a TV show! Who can afford this?”
Not that she wants to be anywhere else. Cash basically doesn’t leave Brooklyn unless she has to. Plus, there’s a certain amount of anonymity that the borough affords the just-starting-to-become-visible celebrity. “In LA, everyone looks to see who you are,” Cash says. “In New York, everyone looks to see what you’re wearing. It’s not the same. Nobody gives a shit.”
Ahhh, but there’s that hint of self-deprecation creeping back into her voice. Maybe there’s more than just modesty going on here—maybe there’s a bit of denial folded into Cash’s reticence to declare herself a rising star. Because to hear Falk say it, Cash is about to become “highly in demand.” Cash delivers one of Gretchen’s scathing monologues this season, in an episode “for which I think she should win an Emmy,” Falk gushes. “It’s absolutely amazing.”
Cash refuses to give in to the hype. “This business is a very long trek. You’re climbing Mount Everest and you’re looking down and you’re going, wow, I’ve come so far. But then you look up and you’re like, wow, I still need to keep climbing. I hate this sort of fantasy spewing—‘Oh, you just got discovered!’ This is the reality—and it’s not a bad thing—but I still have to work to get jobs.”
Never mind that critics have called your show the funniest on TV, and magazines want to run photo spreads of you, and journalists want to interview you and tell the world who you are. But a decade in the trenches has taught Cash to proceed not with Gretchen-style wild abandon, but optimistic caution. “I’m just happy to have a great job,” she says, “and I hope it lasts forever.” ♦